The McRib: Enjoy Your Symptom

How McDonald’s strange, seasonal sandwich explains the rest of its menu

A McRib Sandwich
Wikimedia Commons

Each year, the McRib makes a brief visit to Earth. Its arrival elicits reactions ranging from horror to awe. And for good reason: this would-be rib sandwich is really a restructured pork patty pressed into the rough shape of a slab of ribs, its slathering of barbecue sauce acting as camouflage as much as coating.

“Pork” is a generous term, since the McRib has traditionally been fashioned from otherwise unmarketable pig parts like tripe, heart, and stomach, material that is not only cheap but also easier to mold and bind into a coherent, predetermined shape. McDonald’s accurately lists the patty’s primary ingredient as “boneless pork,” although even that’s a fairly strong euphemism. Presumably few of the restaurant’s patrons would line up for a Pressed McTripe.

Despite its abhorrence, the McRib bears remarkable similarity to another, more widely accepted McDonald’s product, the Chicken McNugget. In fact, the McRib was first introduced in 1982, shortly after the company had designed the McNugget. Chicken McNuggets are fashioned by the same method as is the McRib, namely by grinding factory-farmed chicken meat into a mash and then reconstituting them into a preservative-stabilized solid, aka a “nugget.” And both products are bound and preserved by a petrochemical preservative called tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ. According to the Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives, one gram of TBHQ can cause “nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse.” In a 2003 lawsuit accusing McDonald’s of consumer deception, federal district court judge Robert W. Sweet called Chicken McNuggets a “McFrankenstein creation.”

But despite rejoinders like that of Judge Sweet, the Chicken McNugget flies under the radar, hiding its falseness, while the McRib flaunts it. In part, this is because the concept of a Chicken McNugget corresponds with a possible natural configuration of ordinary poultry, whose meat could be cut into chunks, battered, and fried. By contrast, there is no world in which pork spare ribs could be eaten straight through, even after having been slow cooked such that some of the cartilage breaks down. It’s a partial explanation for the horror and the delight wrought by McRib, but not a sufficient one.

Sometimes the things we believe aren’t out there in plain view, but hidden away inside. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan gives the name objet a to the thing that elicits desire. In French the phrase means “object other” (the a stands for autre). For Lacan, our behaviors themselves may be knowable, but the causes of those behaviors aren’t always so. Objet a is not the object of desire (the thing we desire), but the thing that causes the desire to come into being (the cause of a desire for that thing). The philosopher Slavoj Žižek sometimes calls objet a the stain or defect in the world that motivates a belief or action.

Psychoanalysis focuses on the operation of the unconscious, the motivations that make us think, believe, and act without us being aware of them. As such, we can’t see those causes directly, we can’t unearth them and hold them in our hands. This is one of the main differences between psychoanalysis and modern psychiatry and neuroscience. The psychoanalyst contends that our rationales are not reducible to their symptoms (for matching to pharmaceuticals) or their measurements (for matching to known neurological patterns).

The causes of our desires can’t be seen directly, but must be looked at from a distorted perspective. Žižek calls it a “parallax gap,” a break in perspective separating two things that cannot be synthesized. Here’s how he puts it: “the object-cause of desire is something that, when viewed frontally, is nothing at all, just a void—it acquires the contours of something only when viewed sideways.”

Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors (1553)

In the history of art, the most famous example of “looking awry” at an image to see what only appears as a void from the front is Hans Holbein’s 1553 painting The Ambassadors. When viewed straight-on, its clear that something is amiss in the foreground near the ambassadors’ feet. But only when the picture is viewed askew, from a different perspective, does the “stain” reveal itself: a skull, symbolizing death, thus betraying the vanity of the vestments and ornaments of the painting’s aristocrats. Even though we see skull in the painting, we don’t really see it for what it is until we look at it differently, until we view it sideways.

The McRib is like Holbein’s skull: we experience it as (quasi-)foodstuff, as marketing campaign, as cult object, as Internet meme, but those experiences don’t sufficiently explain it. To understand McRib fully, we have to look at the sandwich askew.

When McDonald’s first “retired” the McRib in 2005, it marketed the event as the “McRib Farewell Tour.” The promotion included websites with a mock-petition to save the sandwich, sponsored by the fictitious “Boneless Pig Farmers Association of America.” The same farewell tour appeared again in 2006, and yet again in 2007. Since then, the sandwich has reappeared for a few weeks in the autumn, a predictable part of the holiday season.

Together, the eternal return of the McRib, along with the blatant celebration of a sandwich that is obviously and unabashedly fake comprise the cause of desire the public bears for McDonald’s. Not just for the McRib, mind you, but for all of the restaurant’s offerings—most of which rely on the same cheap ingredients, machined pre-preparation, and chemical additives that the McRib embodies to the point of caricature.

We know that we do not know the composition of the McNugget or McRib or McWhatever, but we do not know precisely what it is that we do not know. Nevertheless, we desire such products not in spite of the fact that we do not know it, but because we don’t. This apparent paradox rests at the very heart of McDonald’s cookery: the secret components and methods that make it possible to create cheap and predictable, sweet and fat fast food. We normally don’t talk about it, but the chemical composition, mass-manufacture, and freezer-to-tray reconstitution of fast food isn’t just a convenient means to produce a result people enjoy. Instead, that very manufactured falseness is itself what we desire, in food as much as in smartphones—what is high-tech if not designed fakery?

In fact, manufactured, technological falseness has become a feature of haute cuisine as much as fast food. As Jeb Boniakowski has argued, apart from context, cost, and class markers, there’s really not much difference between McDonald’s “super-processed” food and molecular gastronomy, the application of food science to haute cuisine.

If you put a Cheeto on a big white plate in a formal restaurant and serve it with chopsticks and say something like “It is a cornmeal quenelle, extruded at a high speed, and so the extrusion heats the cornmeal ‘polenta’ and flash-cooks it, trapping air and giving it a crispy texture with a striking lightness. It is then dusted with an ‘umami powder’ glutamate and evaporated-dairy-solids blend.” People would go just nuts for that.

And just as fine dining derives some of its desirability from its infrequence, so the McRib’s regular death and reanimation might be a necessary condition for its viability. Some have argued that if marketplace demand for pork trimmings were to rise consistently, then their prices would rise too, destroying the very conditions that make the sandwich possible. Much like waterways can be overfished, the pork parts market can be over-McRibbed. At least, that seems to have been true of the sandwich’s mythic origins. These days, McDonald’s claims that the McRib is made from ground pork, not from offal. Nevertheless, its scarcity makes the sandwich as much a financial instrument as it does an entrée. In 2012, McDonald’s shrewdly shifted the McRib’s return to December from October, relocating its revenues and thus producing slightly higher fourth quarter profits.

This year, the McRib’s fate remains elusive; no official announcement has emerged from the proverbial pressed pig plantation. Still, dutiful citizens in scattered locations across the U.S. have already reported sightings of the sandwich, indicating the porcine stampede has begun.

The McRib’s stochastic return makes visible the relationship between the eater and the McDonald’s menu. It produces a stain, a tear in the order of things that reveals the object-cause of desire for McDonald’s, but only briefly before it evaporates like faux-cartilage. The fragile conditions that make the McRib possible also insure that desire for McDonald’s food more generally speaking is maintained.

Desire is a delicate system. For Lacan, the lover “gives what he does not possess,” namely the objet a that incites desire rather than sustaining it. Likewise, McDonald’s sells what it does not sell: the conditions of predictability, affordability, and chemico-machinic automated cookery that make its very business viable. When we eat at McDonald’s we don’t eat its food—Quarter Pounders or Big Macs or what have you—so much as we consume the mechanical predictability of its overall offering. Chicken McNuggets are the same everywhere. The same shape, the same taste, the same packaging, the same menu, the same uniforms, the same roofline, the same signage. Industrialism is also a kind of magic, the magic of the perfect facsimile. Eating at McDonald’s—eating anything whatsoever at McDonald’s—connects us to that magic, allows us to marinate inside it and take on its power.

We might be conditioned to feel ashamed of this desire, to regret or lament wanting to eat at McDonald’s for the sake of eating at McDonald's—because its shapes and smells and packages are so familiar. But why? We dine at temples of molecular gastronomy like El Bulli or Alinea partly (perhaps largely) for the experience of being shown an experience, of partaking in the concepts, in the presentation of aromas dispersed with dry ice vapor or oils flavored with steelhead roe. Eating isn’t an afterthought, but it isn’t the whole story either.

McDonald’s knows itself and its customers well enough to realize that it must peel back the curtain occasionally, to show the real cause of desire for its products rather than to coat them in duplicitous marketing about freshness and wholesomeness. It’s necessary to insure that the indirect expression of the desire for its wares take the form of a surprise that clashes with our expectations of what to expect from McDonald’s food. One doesn’t even have to eat a McRib to be subject to it, since mass- and now social media perform the work for us. One can unironically post a Facebook update asking “Where’s my McRib?” or drive a little out of the way to pass the McDonald’s in the hopes of glimpsing the distinctive “McRib is Back” signage. Even if you’d never eat a McRib, it’s important to know when it returns, to remind yourself that industrialized, preserved foods are both a miracle and a calamity.

Lacan gave the name “symptom” to the process by which psychoanalytic subjects take part in their unconscious desires. Couldn’t one of Žižek’s famous refrains about the concept, “Enjoy your Symptom,” easily pass as a McDonald’s slogan? The strange, even upsetting relationship between McDonald’s and its customers is not so different from the analyst’s talking cure, which helps the patient see the symptom in order to allow it to be recognized and thereby to disappear. The McRib’s existence injects a measure of otherwise unrealizable gratification into the social fabric of food culture, like the McRib’s sauce covers reconstituted pork to make it palatable. Normally, psychoanalysis is meant to reveal a desire in order to satisfy it. But in the case of McRib, that satisfaction must be temporary, occasional, such that it can return again the next year. A good thing, too because who could bear it every day?

Yet, the McRib’s perversity is not a defect, but a feature. The purpose of the McRib is to make the McNugget seem normal.